Your Plastic Brain (redux)

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. ~ William James (American Philosopher/Psychologist, leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism, 1842-1910)

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side. ~ Hunter S. Thompson (American Journalist/Author, 1937-2005) [Remember that the art of music is quite different from the business of music.]

Generally students are the best vehicles for passing on ideas, for their thoughts are plastic and can be molded and they can adjust the ideas of old men to the shape of reality as they find it in villages and hills of China or in ghettos and suburbs of America. ~ Theodore H. White (English Journalist, Historian and Novelist, 1915-1986)


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Learning changes your brain structure. My own plastic brain underwent some serious alteration this weekend, all naturally induced, thank you very much. One of the world’s foremost grand masters of the djembe, Mamady Keita (vid to follow), was in Chicago to give beginning-, intermediate-, and advanced drum workshops. I’ve never had a djembe lesson before. I signed up for the beginner session and would learn very quickly what “beginner” actually meant to this crowd. Good thing I didn’t know that Keita’s definition of “beginner” is most people’s definition of,  “I know what I’m doing.” If I’d known this, my stomach would’ve been in an even tighter knot because I was showing up with little to no real djembe experience. There’s nothing like a good challenge to get oneself to really pay attention.

The reason Keita was familiar and something of a superstar in my eyes (he actually is a superstar in the djembe world) is because I’m in the midst of a CSEME study on music teacher excellence and the teacher I’ve chosen to study is Taylor, one of Keita’s foremost students, first to earn the highest degree from Keita’s Tam Tam Mandingue school of percussion. Taylor (aka Michael Taylor) often brings world-class drummers to Chicago for workshops. When I heard this legendary musician was coming to town I had to sign up despite my tiny accumulation of djembe knowledge and very little skill, most of which was acquired from observing Taylor teach (one time) and not from actually practicing. I was nervous before the lesson started and even more so when I realized I was in a circle with over 40 people, most of whom were accomplished players. I remember looking around and thinking, “These are beginners? [insert expletive here]!” Watching the following vid before meeting the man didn’t calm my nerves any. If you’re short on time, skip up to 1:35 to hear Mamady.

Mamady produced a tone from his drum that was full-on mystical and powerful in a way that defies mere description. You have to see/feel/hear it for yourself to understand its power. I survived the lesson, and in an hour and a half learned a piece, though my technique is still hackwork at best.

What stuck with me was something Mamady said about practice and the drum. He looked all of us in the eye and told us in his French-accented English, “You now know this rhythm. This piece of music. But many of you can not play it. You know the rhythm but you do not know the music. You must work on your sound. The drum is no different from other instruments. Piano, violin, guitar, trumpet. It is same. People think that they can hit a drum at the right time and so they can play djembe music. This is not so. You must practice. In djembe we have only three: bass, tone, and slap. But if you cannot do these well, if you cannot make your drum speak with your own voice, you are just making noise. You must practice. Just like other instruments.” Anyone who doubted these words when they walked in the door (which was probably nobody) would certainly be convinced after hearing Mamady amazing sound.

In the hour and a half of practice, I learned a lot and could almost feel my neurons growing new connections. I’ve said it before, will say it again now, and probably will find more research that will allow me to say it again more deeply later: Your brain changes when you practice. Many of the brain studies done look at musicians, and although none that I’m aware of have yet looked at djembe musicians the same rules apply. In one study at the University of Alabama, Edward Taub compared brains of experienced violin players with those who didn’t play an instrument. The region of the brain that controlled the left hand was radically different in the two groups (larger in the musicians) and even though people who started earlier had more difference (some studies say age 7 is optimal), Taub said, “Even if you take up the violin at age 40, you still get brain reorganization.” You’re never too old to learn. Believe it.

So. How do you go about changing your brain to one that’s more musical? It all has to do with memory and memory is built through practice. No big surprise, right? What you might find surprising is that the practice might not have to actually involve playing your instrument! Merely thinking about it can help. At Harvard, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone scanned the brains of volunteers before and after practicing a simple piano piece. As you might expect, the brains of those who practiced at the piano showed neural growth that reflected this practice. The remarkable thing is that Pascual-Leone had a second group just think about doing the exercise and this group was instructed not to move their hands while doing the mental rehearsal. This produced an equally pronounced change in the same region of the motor cortex as those who actually played the instrument when practicing. Amazing!

A good question to ask is, “How much practice does it take?” Another researcher, Michael Colicos suggests that “the long-term changes in the neurons occur only after the neurons are stimulated four times over the course of an hour.” Through my own experience as a player of various instruments, it seems to me that this is the lower limit for the changes in the brain to take place. Just because the brain has changed doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily recall the skill. Later that evening as workshop participants and Mamady relaxed and talked at Taylor’s home, I could only vaguely recall the many parts of the piece I’d learned, even though I had played them correctly earlier in the day, many times in a row over the course of an hour and a half. I should’ve spent some time in mental practice to solidify what I’d learned.

Dununba is the lowest-voiced accompanying drum in a djembe ensemble.

In Taylor’s basement, some highly accomplished and diligent students continued to practice pieces they had learned that day, like  funkanee, and the thumping pulse of the large dununba rose up through the floorboards, keeping perfect time, like the bone-deep throb of lifeblood in the veins.

Good luck. Have fun with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.



Colicos, M. A, et al (2001). Remodeling of synaptic action induced by photoconductive stimulation. Cell, 107(5), p. 605-615

Pascual-Leone, A. (2001). The brain that plays music and is changed by it. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930 (June), p. 315-329.

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